These days the fate of national service seems tied more than ever to the greater economic struggles our nation is facing. Citizens want to serve in their communities, and this week the Senate is debating legislation that would make it possible for more people to serve than ever before.
September 11th and 12th of last year, the Service Nation Summit convened hundreds of leaders, service corps alumni, and celebrities to talk about the need for expanded national service opportunities, to meet the growing demand among people of all ages to serve full-time in their communities.
While Summit participants were still returning home in the glow of that inspiring event, Lehman Brothers—just blocks from where the Summit took place in mid-town Manhattan—crumbled, and the bottom began to fall out of the economy.
This week, the U.S. Senate will take a hard look at the Serve America Act, a piece of legislation announced at the Service Nation Summit by Senator Orrin Hatch (while his partner Sen. Edward Kennedy, convalescing at home, joined him in spirit).
Little known in September was just how desperately needed this legislation would become by the time it saw the floor of the Senate—just how badly local communities would need the full-time service of committed citizens, and how beneficial service could be to our wavering economy.
National service is:
1. Effective. Highlighting one contribution of national service: in the Gulf region torn apart by Hurricane Katrina, more than 12,000 AmeriCorps members have provided 4.2 million service hours and leveraged more than 368,000 volunteers. Katrina response has been a particular focus of AmeriCorps NCCC, which has deployed 4,070 members who have refurbished 9,500 homes, completed 52,000 damage assessments, supported 820 emergency response centers, distributed 2,280 tons of food, and managed 227,000 volunteers.
2. Cost-efficient. The average full-time AmeriCorps position costs the federal government $9,621 plus an education award of $4,725. The average infrastructure job created by the stimulus package is projected to cost about $100,000, more than five times what a national service position would cost.
3. Expanding the human resource capacity of nonprofits. Organizations need the human capital that national service participants can provide. Both nonprofits and low-income communities have been gravely affected by the economic crisis. Hosting corps members can help organizations meet the growing demand for services, especially when philanthropic giving has decreased significantly. During the past year, the United Way has seen a 68 percent increase in the number of calls for basic needs such as securing food, shelter, and warm clothing. It’s receiving 10,000-15,000 more calls every month compared to 2007.
4. A popular way to give back. At the same time people are answering the call to service in record numbers, to help solve our nation’s most dire social and environmental problems, service corps programs are forced to turn applicants away. YouthBuild turns away 14,000 young people every year for lack of space. Teach for America has 35,000 applications for just 4,000 positions.
5. A bridge to career. Increasing the number of funded service positions not only contributes to our communities in fundamental ways, but also creates much needed professional opportunities during a down job market. Data shows that young people had a harder time finding employment during the summer of 2008 than at any other time since the 1940’s. The youth unemployment rate is now more than 20 percent, and in a couple months the graduating class of 2009 across the country will face very few choices in the job market. The dearth of professional opportunity has potential long-term effects since young people need experience to develop skills and relationships that support future career success.
The Serve America Act will:
- Create 175,000 new service opportunities—many of them full-time—in areas of national need, including education, health, poverty and clean energy, building on the success of AmeriCorps;
- Link the full-time education award to the maximum Pell Grant award amount in order to keep up with the rising cost of college;
- Create a Veterans Service Corps to provide additional support to returning vets and engage them in service;
- Provide Encore Fellowships for retirees who commit to longer-term service, building on the model of the Senior Corps Programs;
- Create opportunities for young people in low-income, high-need communities to volunteer to improve their own communities;
- Establish a Volunteer Generation Fund to help nonprofit organizations recruit and manage more short-and long-term volunteers;
- Provide a Social Innovation Fund to help social entrepreneurs scale effective problems;
- Allow faith-and community-based organizations to meet growing needs in effective ways;
- Improve and expand long-and short-term international service, expanding Volunteers for Prosperity.
The focus in the news has been on the villains of the economic meltdown. But the heroes are ready to swoop in to seize the opportunity to serve America—if the opportunity is there.